By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
I. The Bourne Legacy
Nothing if not prescient, Randolph Bourne's words have become an epitaph for the Progressive Era in the decades since his untimely death in 1918.3 Indeed, with very few exceptions, the standard, textbook interpretation of American history dates the end of the progressive movement to the postwar turmoil of 1919 and 1920, culminating in the election of Warren G. Harding and a mandate for Normalcy.4 Over the next decade, so the story goes, the nation entered a New Era marked by conservatism, consumerism, and cultural conflict, three C's for which the progressive ideology of yore seemed wholly inadequate and obsolete.5 Progressives, at the center of American political life prior to the Great War, became victims to the cruel disillusion of un-fulfillment -- They were, as one historian framed the prevailing tale in 1959, "stunned and everywhere in retreat along the entire political front, their forces disorganized and leaderless, their movement shattered, their dreams of a new America turned into agonizing nightmares."6 And only after the earth-shattering tumult of the Great Depression, nine years hence, would a revived and rethought liberal creed rise again to national prominence, like a phoenix from out the ashes of progressive despair.
It makes for a good story, and, like most neat narrative conventions of synthesis, there is indeed much truth to it. Clearly, many Progressive contemporaries saw events as such: In 1920, Senator Hiram Johnson lamented "the rottenest period of reaction that we have had in many years." Harold Ickes reflected seven years later that 1927 still "isn't the day for our kind of politics." And Progressive luminary Jane Addams looked back at the entirety of the Twenties as "a period of political and social sag."7
And, yet, the progressive experience from 1919-1929, while perhaps primarily a declension narrative, deserves to be further explored. In the words of Ellis Hawley, "[d]elving beneath the older stereotypes of 'normalcy' and 'retrenchment,' scholars have found unexpected survivals of progressivism."8 Indeed, as historian Leroy Ashby notes of the first election cycle after Harding's victory, "the 1922 campaigns seemed positive proof that the progressive movement was regaining some of its prewar vigor," with a number of progressive candidates in Congress and gubernatorial races, such as Burton Wheeler, Gifford Pinchot, Al Smith, and Fiorello LaGuardia, defeating their more conservative opposition. (Indeed, after the election returns, The New Republic went so far as to declare "Progressivism Reborn.")9 And, while the failed third party bid of Robert La Follette in 1924 saw progressivism "fragmented, leaderless, and far removed from the optimism that had followed the 1922 election," America's choice for President in 1928 nevertheless consisted of two candidates with some progressive credentials, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and Governor Al Smith of NewYork.10
Noting this discrepancy between narrative and evidence in 1959, historian Arthur Link suggested in his essay "What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920's?" that "perhaps it is high time that we discard the sweeping generalizations, false hypotheses, and cliches that we have so often used in explaining and characterizing political developments from 1918 to 1929...When we do this we will no longer ask whether the progressive movement was defunct in the 1920s. We will only ask what happened to it and why."11
With Link's fifty-year-old challenge as a guide stone, and with an eye to all the broader and exciting new lines of inquiry that have opened in American history since, this study aims to reexamine the fortunes of progressivism in the decade from 1919 to 1929. How were prominent progressives impacted by the experiences of the immediate post-war era? How did they navigate their way through the 1920s? What causes did they take up and what contributions did they make to the politics of the period? And, perhaps most importantly, what sort of rhetorical and ideological transformations were progressives forced to make to keep their ideology practicable and relevant in an age of consumer culture and cultural conflict?
As this study explores, progressives were badly jarred by the failures of Wilsonism and the excesses that marked the annus horribilis of 1919, and many never recovered. But others persisted even during the unfavorable political climate of the Twenties.
Shocked by the outright repression and virulent nationalism that had accompanied World War I and the subsequent Red Scare, some progressives began rethinking the appropriate role of state power and the importance of civil liberties, just as others crafted draconian immigration reforms that followed the letter, if not the spirit, of earlier attempts to "Americanize" citizens. Wary of the influx of private interests into government life that accompanied the return to normalcy, some progressives, particularly the Western mavericks in the Senate, battled corruption on both ends of Washington, and reaffirmed the centrality of the public interest in endeavors ranging from radio regulation to public power. Progressive peace activists and organizations emerged at the forefront of an international disarmament movement. Newly empowered with the vote, many progressive women looked to fashion a stronger federal role over the realms of education, health care, and child welfare.
The Progressive-headed "Committee of Forty-Eight" attempted to forge an independent political movement behind insurgent Senator Robert M. LaFollette, who captured approximately 17% of the vote in 1924. The NAACP, under the leadership of W.E.B. Du Bois, worked to improve the lives of African-Americans in southern states and northern cities, and began crafting its legal strategy to dismantle segregation. And countless progressive reformers, in laboratories as diverse as Al Smith's New York and Herbert Hoover's Commerce Department, experimented with ideas, ranging from social insurance to associationalism to regional development, which would later form the centerpiece of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
But, as times changed, so too did progressivism, and not the least because many of its leading lights either grew tired and frail or passed beyond the veil. From World War I on, progressives continually found their foundational faith in individual improvement and the infallibility of an informed electorate tested. The "business bloc" that formed behind Harding and Coolidge, coupled with cultural conflicts of the period, as embodied most famously by the Scopes Trial and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, further strained the progressive belief in a crusading, dispassionate, and well-informed middle-class as a vehicle for change. And as progressives grappled with the growing centrality of consumerism and consumerist thinking in all aspects of American life and governance, they had also to confront the abysmal failure of -- and fallout from -- Prohibition, the movement's most ambitious moral experiment, and a telling indicator of the limits of reform.
Over the course of the decade, as progressives saw setback after setback and everything from advertising to Freudianism suggested that base instinct all too often prevailed over reason, many seemed to lose their abiding faith in the central touchstones of their ideology: the concept of the public interest, the transformative power of public opinion, and the capacity for individual improvement. Instead of conceiving themselves as the vanguard of the popular will, many now defined themselves as an oppositional elite. Chiding themselves for their earlier ambitions, and lamenting what they now thought of as hopeless naivete, they turned inward and apart. They began to dwell less on how to mold good citizens and more on questions of economic power and individual rights. And so, even as they laid down much of the policy groundwork for the New Deal, progressives tempered by the post-war experience also bequeathed a new language and disposition toward reform that would characterize the movement for decades to come.
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2. Ibid, 308.
3. Indeed, one does not have to look very far to find Bourne playing the grim harbinger of progressive demise in several narratives of the period. "Bourne was right: the progressives needed the war effort, and the war effort needed them," concludes Michael McGerr in his synthesis A Fierce Discontent. "What was canny intuition in 1917 became obvious reality by 1919 and 1920." In The Story of American Freedom, Eric Foner uses Randolph Bourne to similar purpose. "Bourne's prescience soon became apparent...[the war] laid the foundation not for the triumph of Progressivism but for one of the most conservative decades in American history." Michael E. McGerr, A Fierce Discontent : The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (New York: Free Press, 2003), 283,310.. Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, 1st ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 177.
4. "No concept," argued historian Burl Noggle in 1966, "has endured longer or been more pervasive among historians than the one which views the 1920s as a time of reaction and isolation induced by the emotional experience of World War I." Milton Plesur, The 1920's: Problems and Paradoxes; Selected Readings (Boston,: Allyn and Bacon, 1969). p. 283. Similarly, Arthur Link remarked in 1959 that, "[w]riting without out much fear or much research (to paraphrase Carl Becker's remark), we recent American historians have gone indefatiguably to perpetuate hypotheses that either reflected the disillusionment and despair of contemporaries, or once served their purpose in exposing the alleged hiatus in the great continuum of twentieth-century reform." Arthur Link, "What happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920s?" The American Historical Review, Vol. 64, No. 4 (Jul. 1959), 833.
5. As LeRoy Ashby sums it up in his study of William Borah, "by the Twenties, [the] prewar progressive consensus was in shambles. As the unifying spirit and confidence of the earlier years dissolved, the internal weaknesses of progressivism became all too apparent. One agonizing problem - and one which Borah symbolized so vividly - was the need to square the basically rural and agrarian social vision of progressivism with the demands of an ethnically and racially diverse nation. Although many progressive leaders were urban residents, their roots and biases tended to be overwhelmingly rural. Their penchant for individualism, their hostility to special privilege, and their Protestant faith comprised the intellectual and cultural baggage which they carried with them from their village backgrounds." LeRoy Ashby, The Spearless Leader; Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920's (Urbana,: University of Illinois Press, 1972), 7.
6. Link, 834.
7. McGerr, A Fierce Discontent : The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, 313,15. Ashby, The Spearless Leader; Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920's, 284.
8. Ellis Hawley, "Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretariat, and the Vision of an Associative State, 1921-1928," The Journal of American History, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Jun. 1974), 116.
9. Ashby, The Spearless Leader; Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920's, 56-57.
10. Ibid., 179.
11. Link, 851.
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